I don’t remember how old I was when I first learned about the Holocaust. I do know that I became very grateful that I don’t usually remember my dreams because the ones that woke me up as a girl, and still do, were of running away from the fires that the storm troopers who were coming to get me had set.
I also remember checking all my history textbooks in high school to make sure that they included at least a few paragraphs, maybe even a couple of photographs, about the Holocaust. I wanted my non-Jewish classmates to know about it; I wanted my people’s suffering to be acknowledged.
But that’s history. Surely things are better now. They were…for a while.
Many of us lived through a “golden age” here in the “goldene medina,” this golden land that our Yiddish-speaking ancestors came to.
From the time the scope of the Holocaust was revealed and the establishment of the State of Israel, for almost 70 years, institutional antisemitism was (mostly) dismantled, and antisemitism itself was private, hidden, without broad public airing.
No serious politician or person in public life would dare to speak in a way that stereotyped or disparaged Jews— and if they slipped, they had to apologize.
But then, in the last ten years or so, prejudice began to be spoken aloud against people of color, people from Asia, women, and Jews, everyone who looked or were deemed “different” by those who assumed that power was theirs by right.
That prejudice was felt by those who coveted power and sometimes achieved it, and it was acted on by those who feel they are forgotten and outside the power structure of the US.
A martyr is someone killed because of their beliefs or because of who or what they are.
We’ve seen so many people killed for no other reason than their appearance or belief:
–the people killed because they were black
–the people in Pittsburgh and Poway, CA, killed only because they were Jewish
-the children and adults killed recently in Tennessee for no real reason other than the shooter’s grievance…
And we could, unfortunately, make this list much longer.
There are two attitudes people can have about persisting in being Jewish, in honoring our heritage, in teaching our children and grandchildren.
One is stubbornness: I don’t care what the haters say or do; even if it endangers my life I will fight to keep the Jewish people alive and strong, to continue our unbroken line of thousands of years.
I may not be knowledgeable or observant, but I want to honor my ancestors by teaching pride in our heritage to my children. I’m not going to let the bad guys win!
It seems to me that “They tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat,” while true, isn’t really enough of a reason to keep fighting against those who hate us.
There’s another way of understanding the need for Judaism and the Jewish people to exist. It comes from Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi z”tl, my teacher, the inspiration for the Jewish Renewal movement.
He came to believe that Judaism is not only particular to Jews but is also an essential part of the world. He said that Jews should learn about other religious traditions because the well-being of all human beings on the planet depends on the teachings of all religions. Religions are like organs of the body: you can’t expect liver cells to do the heart’s job, or heart cells to do the stomach’s job—all religions are part of and necessary to the health of the planet.
If we don’t have answers for ourselves and those who are neutral or ignorant about Judaism and Jews about what Judaism teaches both Jews and the rest of the world, how will we be strong enough to stand up to those who hate us?
Rabbi Rami Shapiro reminds us that G!d is YHVH, from the Hebrew verb for “to be”: YHVH is not a noun but a verb, not a Being but being itself; not the Creator but creativity; not one separate from the many but a non-dual and endless manifesting of the one and the many. For Rabbi Rami, Judaism is “irrelevant” unless it fulfills its duty to be “a blessing to person and planet” and “a light unto the nations.”
We are in the midst of the time in our calendar when we focus on making amends with the people in our lives, remember all the ways we have missed the mark in the past year, and resolve to do better.
Even if we don’t believe there is literally a Book of Life that we hope to be inscribed in, we remind ourselves of three things that will make our lives better: teshuva (repentance, or, better, returning); tefilah (prayer); and tzedakah (giving money or action to make the world better).
Rabbi Rami suggests that if we as Jews want to live up to the promise in Beresheet, the book of Genesis, that we will be a blessing to all the nations in the world, the specific things that we are meant to embody and teach the world are teshuva and tzedakah.
Teshuva: Self-examination is not easy; recognizing ways we missed the mark and didn’t live up to our own ideals of how we behave toward others can be troubling and make us feel bad. My teacher Charlie Roth z”l taught that this ability that humans have to examine and reflect on our lives is unique among the creatures that live on earth; only we can recognize when we have strayed from the path of living righteously, express our apologies to those we have hurt, and give and receive forgiveness.
If we save up all our teshuva, all our need to make amends, only for once a year at the new year, it can become overwhelming. What Judaism teaches us, and what we can teach the world, is that continually learning from our mistakes and correcting them as best we can is a way of harmonizing relationships and enhancing peace.
In biblical Hebrew, the way to show direction, traveling towards a place, is with an “ah” ending. For example, Egypt is Mitzrayim. When the Israelites are instructed not to return to Egypt the text says, “Don’t go Mitzray-mah.”
The word tzedek means justice. We can read the word tzedakah as a direction: movement toward justice.
We can’t visualize what YHVH is; we know everything is YHVH; we know people sometimes treat others badly, or allow social systems to exist that keep everyone from realizing their potential.
Tzedakah is moving toward justice: whatever we do, whatever we give, whatever leaders we choose at all levels of government — if we make those choices based on our Jewish values of justice and compassion, we move toward healing the world.
The basic question we ask on Rosh Hashanah is: Who am I?
Reb Nachman of Breslov played with the word rosh (meaning head) and changed the vowels of shana to read shinu-i, change. The work of Rosh Hashanah is to change the head, to get away from the small mind of the self and shift to a spacious mind, one that recognizes with compassion the interconnection of all life on Earth.
The basic question on Yom Kippur is: Why am I here?
By recognizing the ways we, as individuals and as communities, have missed the mark, we come to affirm our commitment to repairing the world with justice and compassion.
If we think about it, many of our practices as Jews fit into the reminders to do teshuvah (recognize how we missed the mark, make amends, do better) and to promote tzedakah (behaving in ways that increase justice and compassion).
There’s a reason Torah (which means “instruction”) instructs us so many times to take care of the powerless, behave honestly in business, treat animals and the land humanely, to pursue, yes pursue, both justice and peace: we’re human beings who find it easy to slip into looking out for ourselves first; we need to be reminded!
May we all remember the reminders we heard from Torah and haftorah this morning: Work to do justly and repair ourselves and the world! It’s not some far off ideal: Aleinu, it’s upon us, it’s up to us to look within and do better.